Recent Commonplace Entries


“When you are trained by the K.G.B., it means you see the world in terms of threats. That’s the only way you see it. The thing about threats is that when you see threats, you do not have strategy; you rely on tactics. Because you don’t know what the next threat might be, you only respond.” (Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist, quoted in NYT Magazine, June 30)

“That it would be better to be married Desmond felt sure: there was something reassuring about a correctly married couple and for someone like himself to remain a bachelor for too long might lead to an undesirable, if not dangerous, suspicion of eccentricity.” (from Humphrey Slater’s Conspirator, Chapter One)

“The surge of philosophical or political thought in ancient Greece or Rome is partly attributed to the leisure time slavery made available to the ruling classes.”  (Claude Meillassoux, according to Tony Green in History Today, July)

“Not only are subjective and arbitrary notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ inadequate as analytical categories, they actively hinder a more complex engagement with the past. Rather than a meaningful question in and of itself, what must be interrogated is the perceived need to attach simplistic and ahistorical labels to historical evets and structures.” (Kim Wagner, in History Today, July)

“In colonial times, when the British were putting pressure on you, the best place to run away to was Britain itself. Generally though we now have to say that British imperialism was bad and we would like Britain to accept this.” (Nelson Mandela, in Sunday Telegraph, April 1, 1990, quoted by Nicholas Bethell in Spies and Other Secrets, p 222)

“Is self-absorbed fiction always narcissistic, or only if its written by a straight white male? What if it’s autofiction, does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more self-absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” (Claire Lowdon, writing about John Updike in TLS, July 5)

“And yet, this match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common – language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markets of culture, including sporting passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. Cricket confirms that there is more that unites us than divides us.” (Shashi Tharoor, Indian Member of Parliament, in TLS, July 5)

“There is a serious point here, though Winder would never fall out of character to make it without concealing it among anecdotes and droll asides: ‘history’ in general, and historical progress in particular, is not so much he depiction of a logical sequence of events as an invention of historians determined to impose systems and orderly narratives on the unruly past, especially if these scholars were looking at the past as a mere prelude to national greatness.” (Philipp Blom, in review of Simon Winder’s Lotharingia, in TLS, July 5)

The Times mentioned [Norman] Stone’s ‘waspish views’, ‘energetic sex life’ and ‘legendary’ consumption of alcohol (only slightly less euphemistic than the now outdated trio of ‘didn’t suffer fools/free with affections/bon vivant’).” (D.H. in TLS, July 5)

“Genesis is the best book ever on dysfunctional families. Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac on a mountain — Sarah, his wife, must not have been happy with that.” (Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, quoted in NYT, July 13)

“For one, it was so much more relaxing. To be a step ahead in matters of romance requires constant vigilance. If one hopes to make a successful advance, one must be mindful of every utterance, attend to every gesture, and take note of every look. In other words, to be a step ahead in romance is exhausting. But to be a step behind? To be seduced? Why, that was a matter of leaning back in one’s chair, sipping one’s wine, and responding to a query with the very first thought that has popped into one’s head.

And yet, paradoxically, if being a step behind was more relaxing than being a step ahead, it was also more exciting. From his relaxed position, the one-step-behinder imagines that his evening with a new acquaintance will transpire like any other – with a little chat, and a friendly goodnight at the door. But halfway through dinner there is an unexpected compliment and an accidental brushing of fingers against one’s hand; there is a tender admission and a self-effacing laugh; then suddenly a kiss.” (from Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, p 122)

“Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.” (from Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, p 196)

“The latter [Labour] continues to be pulled apart by a  schism which has exited since the 1970s between those who believe the European Union – like its predecessor, the European Economic Community – is a champion of workers’ rights and a bulwark against  free-market capitalism, and those who believe it is an agency of neo-liberal economics which would block the establishment of a UK socialist paradise.” (from Spectator editorial, July 13)

“Quite often my father’s lies were so transparent that, barely concealing reality, they did little damage. He lied on principle. Mainly, I imagine, en famille; otherwise how could he have sustained so many positions of trust in a long and well-chronicled career? He lied like other people play tennis, as if it were for relaxation. He never resented being challenged or accused: he would simply emit a little sigh of resignation and compassion, like a prophet rejected in his own country by his kith and kin. Like a prophet, he spoke of what should have happened or what he would like to have happened.” (Anthony Blond, in Jew Made in England, p 16)

“He played golf – which, of course, he pronounced ‘goff’ – in Cannes with the Duke of Windsor; and once when two foursomes, including Alfonso of Spain and Umberto of Italy, were holding them up, to the irritation of the Duke, he remarked, ‘Yes, sir, I’m afraid that today the course is littered with ex-kings.’ It was their last game together.” (Anthony Blond, on Anthony Heckstall-Smith, in Jew Made in England, p 115)

“He was pleased that I was on the committee of the National Council for Civil Liberties (as it was then sensibly called),and told me how, as a young lawyer, he had accompanied a chief inspector on a raid of the Communist Party’s HQ, at the time of the Cable Street conspiracy, in search of incriminating documents. He had asked the chief inspector if he was sure he would find any. ‘Quite sure, ’he replied, tapping his overcoat, ‘I have them here.’” (Anthony Blond, on Sir John Foster, in Jew Made in England, p 215)

“Jews have not the Anglo-Saxon distaste for public scenes: indeed they enjoy them.” (Anthony Blond, in Jew Made in England, p 217)

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